Transcending Tragedy: THE CROW at 25

Before seeing a trailer, a press release, or any proper media buzz for Alex Proyas’s adaptation of The Crow, James O’Barr’s comic-book series, there was the shocking tragedy.

On March 31, 1993, Brandon Lee, son of the legendary martial artist and international movie star Bruce – and a blossoming action star in his own right – was filming a scene as Eric Draven, the slain angel of vengeance at the center of the picture. The scene in question called for Lee’s character to walk in a room and be immediately shot by a member of the gang of hoodlums who murder Eric and his fiancé. Lee hit his mark, the prop gun fired, and the grocery bag he was carrying properly exploded thanks to the squib inside.

Lee fell to the ground on cue, and it took a moment or two for anyone on the set to realize that the prop gun had either a piece of metal lodged in the barrel, or a live round loaded into the gun. Whatever the case, Lee was rushed to the hospital with a gunshot wound to the gut, where he died after hours of surgery and pints of blood.

He was 28, and he was gone.

Controversy still lingers around Lee’s death (a .44 caliber slug was retrieved from Lee’s body), though it was ultimately ruled an accident in 1993. Nevertheless, The Crow was only two weeks from the finish line at the time of the accident, and now a distraught Alex Proyas and crew needed to make a decision in the face of unimaginable tragedy. Ultimately, Proyas and the production team decided to move forward. After a six-week hiatus, script rewrites, and some stand-in work from Lee’s stunt double, future John Wick director Chad Stahelski, The Crow wrapped production in June of ’93. Except now, it needed a distributor after Paramount dumped the film after the delays.

A young upstart studio called Miramax picked up the project, and set it for a May 1994 release. After a year of sadness and controversy in the face of despair, Proyas delivered Brandon Lee’s dark, bloody, grim revenge tale to audiences who, with a mix of morbid curiosity and genuine interest, made the film number one at the box office on its way to a substantial $50 million haul.

The aura of Brandon Lee looms large over The Crow, even 25-years later. Lost amid said aura, however, is a nasty gothic superhero thriller that introduced audiences to the distinct visual language of Alex Proyas. Since 1980, the Egyptian-born, Aussie-raised filmmaker had been directing short films and music videos for the likes of INXS, Fleetwood Mac, and Crowded House. The success of The Crow opened doors for Proyas, who went on to direct two vastly underrated science fiction thrillers in Dark City and Knowing, one of the strangest, most exciting Nicolas Cage studio pictures of the new millennium.

Proyas leans heavily into the stark black-and-white panels of O’Barr’s comics, and adds an industrial tinge to some of the interiors that make everything feel cold and detached. Very little color exists in this hellscape of urban decay, save for the splashes of blood and the harsh lighting of drug dens and grunge-poisoned nightclubs. It is a haunted noir universe where characters are hopelessly lost, and Proyas wisely never allows the story to drift into camp or let his characters stray from the elevated gothic vibe he’s crafting. The Crow is, first and foremost, a style exercise, but it still has a soul thanks to its most soulful hero.

Even though the tragic history of The Crow never fades completely, Lee’s performance manages to still push through and transcend the distraction of his own passing. Lee’s long face makes the white makeup pop off the screen, and his ability to over-articulate his words in a natural way add a layer of menace to his delivery as Draven stalks and executes everyone responsible for his murder and the murder of his love, Shelly (Sofia Shinas). Lee’s performance is also boosted by the presence of some rock solid character actors, all who elevate the pulpy material and give it an identity that would never return in the increasingly terrible sequels.

Ernie Hudson is the hangdog beat cop trying to keep his feet in a reality that is slowly dissolving around him, and keeping an eye on the precocious teenager, Sarah (Rochelle Davis); there is T-Bird, the leader of the murderous gang of thugs, played by the great David Patrick Kelly, who stole our hearts when Arnold Schwarzenegger dropped him off a cliff in Commando. The criminal pulling all the strings is Top Dollar, a reptilian gangster played by Michael Wincott in an eerie, repulsive performance.

The success of The Crow was initially spurred by a morbid curiosity, there is no getting around that. But after it’s $11 million opening weekend and the number one spot at the box office (hard to imagine, isn’t it?), Brandon Lee’s captivating farewell proved to have legs beyond the ghoulish gimmickry involved with seeing a final performance and a film mired in controversy. Proyas captures the very essence of O’Barr’s work, and in Lee the writer and filmmaker found the perfect deliveryman.

It’s difficult to predict the future for Brandon Lee. Had he lived, The Crow may not have gotten that early surge in ticket sales and could have been the type of film that finds its legs on home video. The only thing that was certain with Lee, is that his star was on the rise, and this was destined to be at least his next stepping stone. The low key success of Showdown in Little Tokyo and the stellar Rapid Fire were clear indications that he was just beginning to step out from his father’s ubiquitous shadow and forge his own path as an actor.

Now, however, he is Eric Draven for legions of fans. There is no separation anymore, which makes the endless attempts to get a remake off the ground seem more and more like a bad idea. Fans of the character see Lee in the makeup and goth attire forever, a ghost trapped in a rain-soaked city, etched firmly into this moment in timet. The Crow may not be a perfect film, too melodramatic perhaps, too grim for some, but there is a dedication to the tone that cannot be denied and a propulsive quality to Proyas’s direction that compensates for any perceived shortcomings.

Above all else, there is a young star who became a posthumous pop icon.

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